Barcelona Is Struggling. Is Messi Part Of The Problem Or The Solution?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): English soccer is … sorta boring right now? Liverpool has clinched a title and is sorta faffing about on the field. The race for the final Champions League spot (assuming Manchester City is barred from participating) is not that suspenseful. And we already exalted Chelsea’s youth movement last time we chatted. So rather than dwell in England, let’s move south to Spain, if only so you can remind me how little I know about Spanish soccer.

But rather than talk about Levante’s false 10 (am I doing this right?), let’s focus mostly on the two titans: Real Madrid and Barcelona. As of now the FiveThirtyEight club soccer forecast gives Madrid an 85 percent chance of winning the league. Last I checked, I thought Madrid was a mess! What happened?

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): And people say the big European leagues are predictable with the same champions every year. After seasons of Barcelona domination, they’re finally getting outsmarted by plucky underdogs Real Madrid.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): People LOVE underdog stories.

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): The two giant Spanish clubs judge themselves against each other. Barça saw that Madrid were on the verge of self-sabotaging and they decided, “Hey, we can be better at that, too!”

tchow: Also was Real Madrid really a mess? One (potentially) disappointing Champions League campaign does not a mess make.

ryan: They had three coaches in one season. That’s pretty messy.

grace: The thing is, this is by no means a great Madrid team. FiveThirtyEight’s model estimates them winning the league with 86 points. Back in the La Liga halcyon days of 2009-10, Real Madrid finished second with 96 points.

ryan: It seemed like Madrid had decided to rebuild. They’ve added a bunch of Brazilian teenagers, and they signed some top young, established prospects this past summer. Then coach Zinedine Zidane just decided to play all of the older, slightly worse versions of the players he won all those Champions Leagues with.

grace: Zidane does the Steve Rogers “no, I don’t think I will” meme every time someone at Real suggests a rebuild.

tchow: I guess signing a Luka Jović but sticking him on the bench doesn’t really count as a “rebuild.”

grace: I would love to read the chapter in Luka Jović’s eventual autobiography about Zidane.

cwick: So are you guys saying that this is more about Barça’s failure than Madrid’s success?

grace: One hundred percent.

tchow: For sure. In this La Liga title race discussion, the more intriguing angle is definitely what happened to Barcelona and what’s going to happen to Barcelona, and Lionel Messi specifically.

Before the lockdown back in March, our model predicted Barça to finish 2 points ahead of Madrid and gave them a 62 percent chance of winning another title.

grace: Both of these clubs are dysfunctional from the board level down, but Barcelona have Messi! That should help! Real Madrid don’t have Messi.

tchow: I think you could argue that having Messi HAS helped! Many saw this dysfunction already happening many years back, probably around the time Josep Bartomeu took over as team president, and having Messi has probably delayed what we’re seeing now.

ryan: Barça copied Madrid in another way: They saw Zidane playing all of the old dudes, and now they’ve committed the majority of their minutes to a bunch of guys over 30. But I guess you can sum this up pretty tidily: Barcelona have made three massive signings since Neymar left: Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé, and Antoine Griezmann. Coutinho … is currently playing for Bayern Munich. Dembélé hasn’t been healthy for an entire season since he arrived. And, well, the Griezmann signing was a terrible idea from the jump.

cwick: Ryan, how quickly you’ve moved on from Frenkie de Jong.

grace: I think about how Barça have sold several players to Everton. These guys they were convinced would be good enough for Barcelona ended up actually merely being good enough for Everton.

And in terms of the big marquee signings, I don’t think Barça has signed one in a long time with a greater thought process than “he’s good and marketable, get him.” Even someone who worked out, like Luis Suárez, didn’t come with a clear plan for how to use him.

tchow: The Griezmann signing is the clearest evidence of this, in my opinion.

grace: Yes. Get a guy who thrived in a counter-attacking defensive side where he was the primary threat, and put him in a team that has possession all the time and he can’t operate in his usual spaces because Messi is there.

tchow: And recently, rumors are the Barça board is sticking with their Griezmann experiment. WHAT??

ryan: Griezmann was already at the tail end of his prime and was coming out of a super physically demanding system. Plus, he hadn’t produced like a superstar in a couple years. A signing like that should be a sure thing. This was not that.

grace: Griezmann is 29 right now and they have him contracted until he’s 33. My guess is, beyond the ego aspect of not wanting to admit failure, no one in a post-COVID market will pay anything close to Griezmann’s salary demands. So they’re stuck with him.

cwick: Buy high, suffer through the lows.

ryan: My favorite fact about this iteration of Barça: Messi leads the team in expected assists. Second? Arturo Vidal, a 33-year-old box-to-box midfielder.

grace: Arturo Vidal is awesome, though.

grace: The thing that would worry me the most if I were a Barcelona fan is that these are supposed to be the good years they’ll be paying for later. Short-term gain for long-term pain. But it’s already pretty rough right now.

tchow: They don’t have the right personnel to make Griezmann work here. Suárez is not the same type of strike partner as a Diego Costa or an Olivier Giroud. As long as Messi is there, Griezzman is gonna be pushed out wide if he’s not playing up top. So if Barça is signalling that they are sticking with Griezmann, are we finally seeing the end of Messi’s time at Camp Nou?

(For the record, Messi’s current contract is until 2021 but per his contract, he could leave on a Bosman transfer after this season. There are also rumors he has already extended.)

ryan: Yeah, rather than mortgaging the future to get the best out of Messi’s last few years, they’re sabotaging their future AND sabotaging Messi’s last few years. Not great!

tchow: Every time Barça is struggling, you hear the “Messi is leaving” conversation start back up and I apologize for bringing it up AGAIN here but come on, we can’t not address it, right? It is a lot of noise but the older he gets, the more I believe it could happen.

grace: There’s always noise but I find it hard to believe Messi will leave, to be honest. He isn’t happy about the way the club is run and I think we’d all agree with him on that. But it always seems to be a negotiating tactic.

cwick: Negotiating to what end, though?

grace: Well, he wants them to sign good players, which is understandable. But he simultaneously demands so much money that it hamstrings the club’s ability to sign such players.

ryan: But where would he go? I really have no idea. Pep’s City seem like an obvious option, but they might not be in Europe. Can’t see him at PSG. Bayern don’t pay the money they’d have to pay for him, typically. Team up with Ronaldo at Juventus?

tchow: Inter Milan anyone?

grace: Romelu Lukaku shouting “LEO! LEO!”

ryan: If I’m the greatest soccer player of all time, I’m not spending my twilight getting yelled at by Antonio Conte.

grace: With all due respect to both figures, I do not think Messi and Conte would see eye to eye.

tchow: Wait Ryan, your GOAT Adama Traoré is rumored to go to Inter too?

grace: Adama Traoré would be great in that Conte wingback role.

ryan: Adama Traoré has been linked with every club. That’s what happens when you’re the best. Swap deal for Messi? He’d look good in those sad orange kits.

tchow: Messi has played and won through managerial issues in the past. Inter would also partner him with compatriot Lautaro Martínez. I can see the upside here.

ryan: I want to see old Messi and old Ronaldo playing together at Juventus.

cwick: Remarkably, we’ve somehow gone from talking about Spanish soccer to talking about Italian soccer. Somebody ping me when we start imagining Messi paired with Mourinho at Tottenham.

tchow: If Bayern don’t have the money to pay Messi’s wages, Tottenham might have enough to pay for his cleats.

cwick: And Man United is out of the question?

ryan: They have Mason Greenwood. No room for Messi.

tchow: LOL. What an f-ing sentence.

grace: Manchester United reportedly turned down Cristiano Ronaldo two years ago because he didn’t fit their model of wanting to sign younger players. Don’t see them going for Messi.

tchow: All right, if we don’t see Messi leaving, and with hundreds of millions sunk into bad transfers already, how does Barça right the ship in time for next season?

grace: Extremely rare of me to say this, but I think they have the right idea the last couple of games playing Messi as a 10 behind Griezmann and Suarez. Even if Griezmann isn’t a great fit, he can still play better than this.

tchow: Haven’t they already tried this 4-4-2 already many times this season?

grace: I can sense Johan Cruyff turning in his grave as I say this, but I think they should probably play more reactive, counter-attacking football for the next two years, keep it more solid and let Messi wreck teams when needs be.

cwick: What do the stats say are Barcelona’s most glaring weaknesses right now?

ryan: The main issue is that they are sooooooo sloooooooooow. Their average possession length and the speed at which they move the ball up the field are both way higher and lower than any other team in Spain. They have Messi and Suarez so the attack is still pretty good, but for as much of the ball as they have, they don’t create that much. It’s probably partially a “we can’t concede if we have the ball” thing, too. They have the fourth-best defense in La Liga, per the FiveThirtyEight model, and that’s despite their opponents rarely being able to attack.

grace: Solution to being so slow: Bring Adama Home.

cwick: Yeah, this seems like they just need a couple dynamic midfielders and the problems are halfway to being solved?

tchow: All hope lies in Riqui Puig.

ryan: They bought a certain dynamic midfielder last summer and then seemingly told him “Stop being dynamic.”

grace: That’s just Barça DNA, Ryan. Everyone knows Xavi and Iniesta weren’t dynamic at all and never offered any incision in their passing.

ryan: I really think the biggest tactical issue is that there’s no one to — NFL lingo incoming — take the top off the defense. That problem has cropped up a bunch in the Champions League. Opposing defenses don’t really have to respect a ball over the top or through the lines, and that leads to a bunch of knock-on effects both offensively and defensively.

grace: Ansu Fati is so young but he really has looked promising there.

cwick: Maybe it’s just this Manchester United game I’m watching, but wouldn’t Bruno Fernandes have been the kind of player we’re talking about?

grace: I think you really have to play through Bruno. United can do that because they’ve got nothing else. Barça, well, they’ve got the greatest player of all time they’re playing through.

ryan: Let’s say Barcelona manages to keep Dembélé healthy and figures out a way to re-integrate Coutinho. Both are unlikely, but not impossible. And both would significantly raise the ceiling and buy some time in the future, too.

grace: This would never happen but Barcelona needs a Marcus Rashford type more than a Fernandes type.

ryan: It’s kind of funny that they bought Coutinho because Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah were actually the players they ended up needing.

grace: Yeah, you add Mané to that left flank in 2018, the front three becomes Messi-Suarez-Mané, and that’s a dangerous attack. Leroy Sane was just on the market and they weren’t even interested. Now that’s a guy who could’ve fixed some problems here.

tchow: Grace mentioned Ansu Fati earlier. Wouldn’t left flank be his clearest position for the squad?

grace: Yeah, I think so. But it’s asking a lot of a kid.

cwick: I feel obligated to say that Barcelona has a 9 percent chance to win the Champions League, and it’s not even out of the Round of 16 yet. So it’s not like this whole campaign is a lost cause.

ryan: If Barça win one Champions League over the next couple years, then I guess you’d squint and call all this — whatever this is — a success.

grace: I think it will look like a success compared to whatever comes afterwards.

tchow: LOL. Yeah, Chad. Watch Real Madrid somehow mess this up and Barça actually end up winning this season anyway. We can throw this whole chat in the trash.

ryan: Barcelona have so much money that they’ll never drop too far, but you’re right. There are, like, maybe five players on the current roster who could realistically be core players for this team in four years.

grace: If I were Barcelona president, I’d have a chart of AC Milan’s Elo over the past 20 years and a sign underneath saying “IT CAN HAPPEN TO US.”

ryan: Listen, they won the most recent Deloitte Money League. That counts as a trophy, right?

grace: It counts if you’re Lionel Messi’s agent and you can take it into contract negotiations pointing out how much money they have to pay him.

cwick: Barcelona took over this chat! Poor Real Madrid, they can win the league but they can barely summon any ink from us.

tchow: Underdogs, amirite?

ryan: Real Madrid have spent the last 65 years telling us that league titles don’t matter to them. We’re just following along.

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What If Kevin Garnett And Tracy McGrady Had Shot Threes Instead Of Long Twos?

Forty years and many analytic debates after the first 3-pointer in NBA history, the league finally understands the power of that arc. Twenty-six of the 30 NBA teams have averaged more than 30 3-point attempts per game this season, and only one (the Knicks) has made fewer than 10 long balls a contest. The three hasn’t killed the midrange game, particularly for star players, but it has wreaked havoc on the long 2-point jumper. We saw an average of only 2.28 made 2-pointers from at least 19 feet per game this season. That’s less than half the number from an average game in 2015-16 and less than a third of a typical contest from the 2007-08 season.

The jump shot is older than the pro game itself, and sharpshooters have been hitting long jumpers ever since. The difference now is that players increasingly take one step further back to earn an extra point.

NBA players aren’t making as many long twos

Total regular-season 2-point shots made from at least 19 feet since 1996-97, plus each season’s leader

Long TWOS made
SeasonTotalPer gameSeason leader
2019-202,2122.28LaMarcus Aldridge
2018-193,5932.92J.J. Redick
2017-184,8413.94J.J. Redick
2016-175,2164.24J.J. Redick
2015-165,8284.74J.J. Redick
2014-156,3155.13Avery Bradley, LaMarcus Aldridge
2013-146,4375.23LaMarcus Aldridge
2012-136,8405.57LaMarcus Aldridge
2011-125,8775.94Josh Smith
2010-117,8656.39LeBron James
2009-108,1156.60LeBron James
2008-098,7257.09Dwyane Wade
2007-089,5367.75Tracy McGrady
2006-078,5476.95Tracy McGrady
2005-068,6337.02Kobe Bryant
2004-058,5336.94Tracy McGrady
2003-047,5286.33DeShawn Stevenson
2002-037,9406.68Desmond Mason
2001-027,5176.32David Wesley
2000-017,5706.37Mike Bibby
1999-009,0047.57Terrell Brandon
1998-995,1167.06John Starks
1997-988,3267.00Ron Mercer
1996-975,2094.38Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf


In fact, shooters almost always take that step back now. Twenty years ago, 43.9 percent of all jumpers made from 19 feet or further were two-pointers. Terrell Brandon, who led the league in long twos made that season, made 2.7 jumpers per game from at least 19 feet. Only 27 percent of those shots were 3-pointers. Twenty-seven percent!

The contrast to 2019-20 is stark. LaMarcus Aldridge, the NBA leader in long twos made per game, is behind the 3-point line on 61 percent of his jump shots made from at least 19 feet. And Aldridge is an outlier: On average, 91.4 percent of all shots made from at least 19 feet this season were threes.

So what about players like Brandon who made lots of jumpers before the NBA found religion with 3-pointers? How many points did they leave on the table? To find out, I looked on at every regular-season 2-point jumper made from at least 19 feet since the 1996-97 season. I filtered for players with at least 250 field-goal attempts and at least 5,000 career points total. I then converted all of those long twos to threes and recalculated each shooter’s scoring totals and true shooting percentages.

Of course, this is just a thought experiment — there’s no way to know whether those shots would have actually gone in from the longer distance. But this does offer us some insight into who may have most benefited from ditching long-range twos for threes. Here are the 25 players with the greatest difference between their actual true shooting percentage and what it could have been if they had just stepped back.

Players have left a lot of points on the court

NBA players since 1996-97 with the biggest difference in true shooting percentage after adjusting the value of their long 2-pointers* to 3 points

Career pointsTrue Shooting %
PlayerLong TWOsTotalAdjustedCAREERAdjustedDIFF.
Eddie House5675,3565,92350.77%56.14%+5.37
Ron Mercer5495,8926,44147.0151.39+4.38
José Calderón5977,9218,51857.3561.67+4.32
Mike Bibby1,17714,69815,87553.6257.91+4.29
Raja Bell5456,9987,54354.3958.62+4.24
Derek Fisher84410,71311,55751.4155.46+4.05
DeShawn Stevenson4815,9306,41148.7252.68+3.95
David Wesley88511,84212,72752.5556.48+3.93
J.J. Redick70711,58912,29660.2363.91+3.67
Travis Best3825,3765,75851.4555.11+3.66
Channing Frye5157,7868,30154.6558.27+3.61
Avery Bradley4696,7127,18151.5355.14+3.60
Travis Outlaw3795,2735,65250.0353.63+3.60
Brevin Knight3915,3425,73347.5751.05+3.48
Wally Szczerbiak5599,1959,75457.2660.75+3.48
Ben Gordon69311,08411,77754.6358.04+3.42
Kirk Hinrich6329,59410,22651.5854.97+3.40
Steve Blake3635,6626,02552.1455.49+3.34
Lucious Harris3705,7846,15450.7053.94+3.24
Tracy McGrady1,13418,38119,51551.9255.12+3.20
Caron Butler75112,43013,18152.2955.45+3.16
Kevin Garnett1,48426,07127,55554.6257.73+3.11
Luke Ridnour4627,7408,20251.8754.96+3.10
Mike Miller58410,97311,55757.6360.70+3.07
Damon Stoudamire70311,76312,46650.4953.51+3.02

*Long 2-pointers are those from at least 19 feet.

Players include only those with at least 250 field-goal attempts and 5,000 career points. Regular season only.


In general, role players saw the largest true shooting percentage gains, while stars got smaller efficiency bumps despite adding more points to their totals. That shouldn’t surprise anyone — role players are more likely to shoot the assisted perimeter jumpers that were once long twos and are now almost exclusively threes.

But there are two fascinating exceptions: Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady. Like most superstars, they both made a ton of long twos. Unlike most superstars, they got the scoring efficiency boost in this exercise more typical of role players. That’s because their games were made for today’s NBA, not the league in which they starred. The fact that they were near the top of their craft despite so many long twos that would have been discouraged today should be a major boost to their historical legacies.

Garnett and McGrady were prototypes of the two kinds of superstars taking over the league today. Garnett was what we now (ironically) call a “unicorn”: a long, mobile, skilled big man who could space the floor on offense and shut down all five positions on defense. McGrady was the platonic ideal of every top wing scorer today — more point guard than small forward, with shooting range, handles and a lanky core that allowed him to drive around and through his defender.

Put another way, KG was the precursor to Anthony Davis, while James Harden is just T-Mac 2.0. Like Davis, KG toiled on mediocre teams before a midcareer trade to a contender. Like Harden, T-Mac passed up being a sidekick and became the sun that his other teammates orbited around.

Davis and Harden are fortunate enough to play in an era that properly values 3-point shots. Their shot profiles — Harden’s especially so — feature many more threes than long twos, so they appear to be far more efficient scorers than Garnett and McGrady. Based on that, it might be easy to think that Davis and Harden belong in a higher echelon in the NBA pantheon than Garnett and McGrady.

But the reality is far more complex. If you turn every long two made by those four players into made 3-pointers, the efficiency gap among each pair of superstars significantly shrinks. Davis and Harden still have an advantage over their prototypes, but not by as much.

How do KG and T-Mac compare to the next generation?

Career shots made and differences in true shooting percentage after adjusting the value of long 2-pointers* to 3 points for Anthony Davis vs. Kevin Garnett and James Harden vs. Tracy McGrady

Career shots madeTrue Shooting %
Long twosThreesActualAdjustedDiff.
Anthony Davis26624658.82%60.07%+1.25
Kevin Garnett1,48417454.6257.73+3.11
James Harden1762,29660.9961.51+0.52
Tracy McGrady1,1341,08151.9255.12+3.20

*Long twos are since 1996-97, Garnett’s second season in the NBA, which is as far back as play-by-play data goes.


And that’s before considering that Garnett and McGrady had far less room to get their shots and drives than Davis and Harden see today, in an era of pristine spacing. KG would’ve been more open if he stood here:

Lakers vs. Pelicans, Jan. 3, 2020.


Instead of here:

Timberwolves vs. Lakers, April 29, 2003.


And you think T-Mac wouldn’t have relished attacking his man off the dribble with the floor spaced like this?

Rockets vs. Timberwolves, April 15, 2018.


Instead of this?

Magic at Pistons, April 23, 2003.


Perhaps it’s assuming too much to say McGrady and (especially) Garnett would have shot as accurately from one step behind the 3-point line instead of one step inside it. But their reluctance to make that change has more to do with their era than their own qualities.

That’s worth keeping in mind when comparing the statistics of current superstars with past legends, especially amid the 3-point revolution. They may play alike, but they weren’t playing the same game.

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Offensive Team Names Are On Notice — For Real, This Time

We begin with the announcement, built on Friday, that Washington is going to investigate transforming its workforce name to something that ideally isn’t a racial slur versus Indigenous Americans. We all concur that now there is plenty of social and economic force on the greater part operator Dan Snyder that a title improve will come about, most likely in advance of the 2020 NFL year gets commenced. But with the most egregious case in point of appropriating indigenous names and symbols out of the way, it stays to be observed what will develop into of groups like the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks and even the Super Bowl champion Kansas Metropolis Chiefs. We unpack a little little bit of how we arrived to have so numerous Native American team names — the the vast majority sprang up in the early 20th century following the U.S. authorities experienced started a draconian assimilation method from indigenous peoples, properly earning them, in the minds of white People in america, mythic and abstract people — and some of the nuance into how Indigenous People in america them selves see the challenge. The identify modify will be a great point, and long overdue, when it comes about. But there are several other, additional pressing, tangible challenges that ought to have our notice far far more than this concern.

Up coming, we get a glance at what is transformed in our forecast as NBA teams gear up for the Orlando bubble. It turns out? Not as well significantly. The most important beneficiary of the three-month layoff, we consider, is the Philadelphia 76ers, who not only will have a healthy Ben Simmons but may possibly have experienced the time to function out how to play at their optimum likely. The largest losers are the New Orleans Pelicans: Even while Zion has been functioning out and now appears to be, impossibly, more suit, the Pels do not have practically as significantly time, nor as easy a timetable, to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for that final playoff place in the West. Although we really do not know how the time away will have an effect on players’ health and fitness, which could make a large difference to everyone from the Bucks to the Raptors, our RAPTOR has not definitely altered who it thinks will stroll away with the title. The Lakers and the Clippers are however clear favorites about the rest of the field, so it appears more than probable the championship trophy is headed to Los Angeles.

Lastly, Neil breaks down the most imitated batting stances of all time, primarily based on the likes and responses to this tweet from MLB Vault. We master a large amount: that enthusiasts can’t get ample of Gary Sheffield and Ken Griffey Jr., and that Neil could not get ample of Derek Jeter — at minimum as far as his stance was worried.

What we’re wanting at this 7 days:

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Lou Whitaker Turned A Damn Good Double Play

Second base is one of the most important positions on the baseball diamond, always (quite literally) in the middle of the action. But it doesn’t necessarily get the same attention as other, flashier roles in the sport. In the three decades since Joe Morgan and Rod Carew were inducted in back-to-back years in 1990 and 1991, only three more second basemen — Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio — have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the baseball writers. Along the way, a number of deserving candidates at the position have fallen off the ballot because they lacked voting support — and none may have been treated less fairly than former Detroit Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker, this week’s pick for our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players.

HOF resume: Lou Whitaker, 2B

CategoryValueRank at Pos.
Career WAR74.57
Peak WAR37.720
HOF Monitor9320
HOF Standards4312
Black Ink Test179
Gray Ink Test3168
Implied HOF%*30%17
Years on ballot1
Vote share2.9%
HOF track**

*Hall of Fame probability based on traditional stats.

**Hall of Fame track based on most recent vote share and years on the ballot.

Sources:, FanGraphs

When it came to playing baseball, Whitaker did just about everything well: He hit for average better than most batters. He had above-average pop (particularly for a second baseman). He excelled at drawing walks and getting on base. He even had 20-steal speed when he was younger, with above-average base-running value for his career. But of course, the thing Whitaker is most remembered for now is his smooth defense, particularly as half of a fabled double-play combination with longtime Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell. Over 19 seasons in the big leagues, Whitaker took part in 1,527 career double plays, which ranks fourth among all second basemen in baseball history. (And Trammell ranks seventh among shortstops, with the vast majority of his twin killings compiled in tandem with Whitaker.)

In terms of keystone combos, Whitaker and Trammell are probably only rivaled by Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker of the early-1900s Chicago Cubs — and they, of course, had a famous poem devoted to them (along with first baseman Frank Chance). According to fielding runs above average, Whitaker and Trammell saved a combined 178.5 runs during their 14 seasons together as the Tigers’ primary second baseman and shortstop, which ranks second to Evers and Tinker in that regard among MLB 2B/SS tandems since 1901:

Baseball’s best defensive 2B-SS combos

For seasons when a pair of teammates were their team’s primary second baseman and shortstop, most total fielding runs above average (FRAA)

Second BasemanShortstop
CHC1903-12Johnny Evers+89.0Joe Tinker+135.0+224.0
DET1978-91Lou Whitaker87.3Alan Trammell91.3178.5
BAL1973-76Bobby Grich55.6Mark Belanger105.8161.4
CHW1956-62Nellie Fox65.5Luis Aparicio87.1152.6
PHI2005-14Chase Utley110.8Jimmy Rollins41.4152.2
CHC1932-38Billy Herman58.0Billy Jurges75.0133.0
PIT1965-70Bill Mazeroski60.1Gene Alley66.9126.9
NYY1977-81Willie Randolph48.4Bucky Dent73.9122.2
DET1931-38Charlie Gehringer52.0Billy Rogell63.0115.0
NYG1911-19Larry Doyle5.0Art Fletcher106.0111.0
CLE1904-10Nap Lajoie43.0Terry Turner64.0107.0
CHW1950-55Nellie Fox41.9Chico Carrasquel61.0102.8
STL1988-91Jose Oquendo34.4Ozzie Smith66.9101.2
BOS1901-06Hobe Ferris57.0Freddy Parent39.096.0
STL1982-87Tom Herr-2.7Ozzie Smith97.194.5

* Represents the total range of players’ time together as primary players at the positions; may include some seasons in the range in which one or both players were not the primary starter at the position.

FRAA measures a player’s defensive value relative to the average player at his position, and is calculated by averaging together the defensive metrics found at and FanGraphs.

Sources:, FanGraphs

There is a question about just how potent Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance was as a double-play duo specifically — the only time either Tinker or Evers led their position in twin killings was 1905, when Tinker turned two 67 times in a 155-game schedule. But there’s no such doubt for Trammell and Whitaker, who led the league on multiple occasions and had six seasons where both eclipsed 90 double plays in the same year. Between the two, the pair earned seven Gold Gloves and a reputation as one of the most balletic pairings to ever dance around second base.

Most importantly, Detroit started to win — and win, and win — after Whitaker and Trammell arrived late in the summer of 1977. The Tigers had won the World Series in 1968 and made the playoffs as recently as 1972, but they were putting the finishing touches on their fourth consecutive losing season by September ’77. In 1978, however, Detroit improved its record by 12 games, going 86-76 as a 21-year-old Whitaker finished third on the team in wins above replacement (with 3.6) and easily won Rookie of the Year honors over Paul Molitor, the Brewers’ future Hall of Famer.

It was the first of 11 consecutive winning seasons for the Tigers, a span over which Detroit won the second-most ballgames of any team in baseball, averaged 89.3 victories per 162 games and won the 1984 World Series with one of the greatest single-season teams in MLB history. Whitaker was a star, recording 44.4 WAR over that span — which led all MLB second baseman (edging out New York’s Willie Randolph at 43.5) and ranked second on Detroit behind Trammell’s 50.9 WAR.

Whitaker was a driving force behind the Tigers’ renaissance

Ranking in wins above replacement (WAR) among MLB primary second basemen and members of the Detroit Tigers, 1978-88

MLB Second BasemenDetroit Tigers
1Lou WhitakerDET44.4Alan TrammellSS50.9
2Willie RandolphNYY43.5Lou Whitaker2B44.4
3Bobby GrichCAL33.9Jack MorrisP37.8
4Ryne SandbergCHC27.2Lance ParrishC30.7
5Frank WhiteKCR27.1Chet LemonOF28.3
6Bill DoranHOU25.0Kirk GibsonOF23.6
7Johnny Ray2 Tms.22.2Dan PetryP17.7
8Joe Morgan5 Tms.20.2Milt WilcoxP15.4
9Tom Herr2 Tms.19.9Darrell Evans1B14.8
10Glenn Hubbard2 Tms.16.9Steve KempOF14.5

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources:, FanGraphs

Largely on the strength of that run, Whitaker ended up starting in 1,134 Detroit victories during his career, which ranks fourth all-time for one of baseball’s oldest franchises. He also ranks fourth all-time for the Tigers in WAR, in both cases trailing only Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Al Kaline (“Mr. Tiger”) and Charlie Gehringer — and ranking one spot ahead of Trammell.

Sweet Lou’s place among the greatest Tigers ever

Career ranking in wins above replacement (WAR) and team wins started for members of the Detroit Tigers franchise, 1901-2020

WAR LeadersMost Wins Started
1Ty CobbOF144.1Ty CobbOF1,473
2Al KalineOF90.8Al KalineOF1,392
3Charlie Gehringer2B81.1Charlie Gehringer2B1,165
4Lou Whitaker2B71.6Lou Whitaker2B1,134
5Alan TrammellSS67.3Alan TrammellSS1,131
6Harry HeilmannOF/1B65.9Sam CrawfordOF/1B1,018
7Hal NewhouserP62.1Norm Cash1B978
8Sam CrawfordOF/1B61.8Donie BushSS975
9Justin VerlanderP56.5Harry HeilmannOF/1B951
10Hank Greenberg1B/OF55.4Bill FreehanC/1B883

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources:, FanGraphs

And yet, when it came time to vote for the Hall of Fame in 2001, Whitaker’s first year of eligibility (he retired after the ’95 season), “Sweet Lou” received just 2.9 percent of the writers’ vote, well below the 5 percent threshold necessary to stay on future ballots. Trammell got 15.7 percent of the vote in his debut the following year, and though he never came close to the 75 percent needed for induction through the writers’ balloting, he did make it via the Veteran’s Committee in 2018.

Will Whitaker’s turn come as well? Although he is MLB’s 10th-best second baseman since 1901 by JAWS (an average of career and peak WAR), rating better than 63 percent of Hall of Famers at the position (including Alomar and Sandberg), Whitaker was denied by the Hall of Fame’s Modern Era Committee last December, meaning he’ll have to wait until 2022 to be reconsidered yet again. But it remains mystifying that Trammell made it without his longtime partner by his side — particularly considering how similar their careers were, both statistically and narratively. As Trammell put things in his own induction speech:

“My whole career, I had been linked with one person. For 19 years, Lou Whitaker and I formed the longest running double-play combination in the history of baseball. I doubt that record will ever be broken. Lou and I were called up to the big leagues from Double-A on the same day. We both played our first big-league ballgame at Fenway Park on the same day. We both got hits at our first major league at-bats off the same pitcher, Reggie Cleveland. And both got our last hits of our careers off the same pitcher, Mike Fetters. Can you believe that? That’s truly amazing. For all those years, it was Lou and Tram. Lou, it was an honor and pleasure to have played alongside you all those years. And my hope is some day you’ll be up here as well.”

For now, Whitaker is firmly in the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players. We’ll see if someday he gets the Cooperstown upgrade he deserves.

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Bryson DeChambeau’s Power Boost Is Off The Charts

Bryson DeChambeau entered last weekend’s Rocket Mortgage Classic riding an incredible hot streak: In his previous six tournaments, he had finished fifth, second, fourth, third, eighth and sixth (including ties). The only thing he hadn’t yet done this season was win an actual golf tournament, but that came to an end Sunday when he blew past the field in Detroit for a 23-under-par finish that was enough for his sixth professional win.

DeChambeau is the biggest story in golf. And that’s because he’s attempting to become the biggest human in golf. By now, DeChambeau’s weight gain is the stuff of legend: The 26-year-old American began the 2019-20 season noticeably thicker, adding 20 to 30 pounds of muscle by the Presidents Cup in Australia in December. Then when the coronavirus outbreak gave him an additional offseason, DeChambeau did what most all of us did in quarantine: He ate a lot. All told, DeChambeau’s expansive diet, which includes seven protein shakes a day (seven!), and his rigorous weight-lifting regimen allowed him to add some 40 pounds of muscle since last September. The notoriously data-minded golfer viewed this as a calculated experiment to gain a competitive advantage — more bulk means more power and distance off the tee. And at least for now, the experiment seems to have worked.

DeChambeau currently ranks first on the PGA Tour in average yards per drive at 323 yards. The only golfer within 7.5 yards of DeChambeau is Cameron Champ, who is averaging at 322.6. Both golfers are currently challenging Hank Kuehne’s 2003 record average of 321.4 — still the only full season over 320 yards since the Tour started tracking the stat in 1980. But while Champ has been one of the Tour’s biggest bombers — he led the the Tour in distance a year ago at 317.9 yards — DeChambeau was never a mega-hitter. Last year, he averaged 302.5 yards per drive, which was tied for 34th. His best year was 2018, when he hit 305.7 yards per drive (25th best). DeChambeau has improved his average driving distance by 20.5 yards this year — easily the most of any current player.

Nobody has muscled up like DeChambeau

Largest year-over-year increase in average yards per drive for qualified players on the 2020 PGA Tour

Avg. Yards per Drive
Player2019 Season2020 SeasonDiff.
Bryson DeChambeau302.5323.0+20.5
Jonathan Byrd281.6294.813.2
Brian Gay274.9288.013.1
Adam Scott299.3310.311.0
Tommy Fleetwood298.7309.510.8
Webb Simpson288.6298.49.8
Lee Kyoung-hoon286.2295.89.6
Danny Willett293.8302.89.0
Ryan Moore282.2291.18.9
Seamus Power295.9304.68.7

Source: PGA TOUR

Looking beyond 2020, DeChambeau’s single-season increase in driving distance is even more impressive. Only three other players have improved their driving distance by more than 20 yards per drive between seasons since 1980, when the Tour began tracking the statistic.

DeChambeau has a place in distance-gaining history

Largest year-over-year increase in average yards per drive for qualified players on the PGA Tour since 1980

PlayerYearAvg. Yards/DrivePrev. SeasonDiff
Brett Quigley2001298.5276.4+22.1
Ernie Els2003303.3281.421.9
Billy Ray Brown1995260.0239.320.7
Bryson DeChambeau2020323.0302.520.5
José Coceres2003282.8263.219.6
Retief Goosen2003299.4279.819.6
Robert Gamez1994278.4259.119.3
Joey Sindelar2001291.5273.218.3
Phil Mickelson2003306.0288.817.2
Jeff Sluman2001281.6265.016.6

Source: PGA TOUR

And unlike DeChambeau, the other players on the above table saw their increases in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period when technological advances allowed driving distance to make its greatest gains of the past 40 years. The sport as a whole was going through a distance boom during this period, in part because of the new equipment and in part because of Tiger Woods, whose ability to gain distance — and thus strokes — off the tee allowed him to dominate the Tour for years while the rest of the field played catch-up. In 2003 alone, the year after Woods collected his seventh and eighth majors, four of Woods’s biggest competitors saw significant gains in driving distance. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh — who began 2003 ranked second, third, fifth and seventh in the world respectively — all saw Bryson-like increases in their driving distance, with each improving by at least 16 yards.

Tiger’s top rivals added distance while in the hunt

PGA Tour players ranked in the Top 10 to start 2003 who added at least 15 yards per drive that season over the previous season, plus Tiger Woods

Avg. Yards/Drive
Player’03 World Ranking2002 Season2003 SeasonDiff.
Ernie Els3281.4303.3+21.9
Retief Goosen5279.8299.419.6
Phil Mickelson2288.8306.017.2
Vijay Singh7285.6301.916.3
Tiger Woods1293.3299.56.2

Source: PGA TOUR

As you might expect, DeChambeau’s historic power surge has come at the expense of accuracy. Last season, DeChambeau hit 65.02 percent of fairways off the tee, which was 66th on Tour. This year, that number is down to 61.05 percent, which ranks 112th. He likely doesn’t care about that (at least as much as he cares about his tirades being caught on camera, thus damaging his brand). According to strokes gained, which assesses the value of every shot based on how it increased or decreased a player’s expected score on the hole, DeChambeau’s drives helped him gain 0.42 strokes per round on the field last season (which ranked 24th). This year, he’s picking up 1.113 strokes per round on the field through his driving alone, which ranks second behind Champ. Better positioning off the tee has also helped DeChambeau attack the pin. He’s hitting 72.6 percent of greens in regulation this year, up from 66.2 percent, and his ranking in strokes gained “tee-to-green” has improved from 37th to sixth.

DeChambeau’s final two holes on Sunday — when he was chasing off a late bid from runner-up Matthew Wolff — showed the added advantage at work. On the par-5 17th, he uncorked a 355-yard bomb that missed the fairway to the left. Though his ball sat in the rough, it had traveled so far that he needed only an 8-iron to find the green for an eventual birdie. It was on the par-4 18th, though, when Bryson fully unleashed the “Kraken” (his expression, not ours). His drive went careening down the left side of the fairway for 367 yards — the longest drive anyone had hit on No. 18 that week and DeChambeau’s longest of the day. He had just an easy wedge left to set up his eighth birdie of the round, which sealed the victory.

If DeChambeau were a right tackle or a power forward or even a third baseman, this would all make good sense. Golfers have gotten much more fit this century, but adding raw muscle mass has never been a clear path to on-course success. If anything, we hear more stories of golfers losing weight to improve their games.

Because DeChambeau’s story is so unusual, there have been a fair number of skeptics. Some, including a few of his competitors, are concerned about the long-term health implications of his weight gain. Golf legend Colin Montgomerie, meanwhile, seems to think DeChambeau’s driver represents an existential crisis for the sport.

Whatever it means, it’s working for DeChambeau now. But he is not a one-trick pony. DeChambeau’s recent success may have just as much do with the short stick as it does with the driver. It certainly did last weekend, when DeChambeau led the field in strokes gained off-the-tee and strokes gained putting, highlighted by a 30-foot birdie on the 70th hole. This season, his putting strokes gained has improved noticeably, from 28th on Tour to 12th. So it’s not all about the long ball for Bryson — but ask any pro golfer, and they’ll tell you that an extra 20 yards of distance per drive certainly doesn’t hurt to have.

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The Winners And Losers In Our Updated NBA Forecast

When last we left the 2019-20 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers were championship favorites — with the rival L.A. Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks not too far behind — as teams prepped for the final 17 or so games in the regular season.

Then, the coronavirus put everything on hold for four months.

Only now is the sport gearing up for its return, with an ambitious plan to play the rest of the season in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Although playing sports during a pandemic will be a huge challenge, league commissioner Adam Silver recently said he feels “pretty confident” in the procedures he and his team have put in place. So with the restart schedule released late last week, we’ve relaunched our FiveThirtyEight NBA prediction model to forecast the mini-regular season finale, the play-in scenarios and, of course, the postseason.

As a refresher: These predictions are based on 100,000 simulations of the rest of the season and playoffs, using team ratings to generate win probabilities for each game. Those team ratings are determined by each player’s performance in RAPTOR — the Robust ​Algorithm (using) ​Player ​Tracking (and) ​On/Off ​Ratings — which measures his influence on offense and defense, and playing-time forecasts (including each team’s expected rotation and injuries). There are postseason adjustments for players who typically exceed expectations in the playoffs and a bunch of other bells and whistles you can read about here.

Why it only took one player with coronavirus to shutter sports

Add it all up, and it gives a snapshot of where we think each team stands heading into the restart — which isn’t exactly the same as how things looked when the league hit the pause button. Let’s go through exactly what changed in the forecast between then and now.

Which teams look stronger on paper now?

As a side effect of the long layoff, a number of players have recovered from injuries that slowed them down or kept them out back in March. Among teams invited to Orlando, the Milwaukee Bucks (+74 rating points), Philadelphia 76ers (+66) and Portland Trail Blazers (+55) gained the most points in our talent ratings (which estimate the current state of each team). For the Bucks, the reason is simple: MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo has recovered from a sprained knee that was affecting him around when the break happened. Likewise, Portland will get back a healthier Jusuf Nurkić; Nurkić, whom RAPTOR considered an elite player last season but who hasn’t played yet in 2019-20, was set to come back in limited fashion in March, and our depth charts have him set to play normal minutes now. And for Philly, Ben Simmons should be at 100 percent again after a back injury had landed him on the injured list in February.

[Related: How Do You Play Sports In The Middle Of A Pandemic?]

Most teams saw their ratings go up for similar reasons, with an extra few months helping banged-up players recover. Among teams not already eliminated, the next-biggest gains in talent rating were the Celtics (+26), Magic (+18) and Grizzlies (+16).

Whose playoff chances changed?

Although 22 teams will make the trip to Disney World, only 16 will make the playoffs — just like a normal postseason. The remaining eight-game regular-season slate will be used to whittle down the field, with a potential play-in tournament finishing that job if a conference’s No. 9 seed finishes within four games of the No. 8. Most of the remaining teams had already all but locked up their playoff status by March — back then, our model gave 15 teams a playoff probability of 98 percent or higher — but the final spot in the West was still legitimately up for grabs, with the Pelicans (60 percent), Grizzlies (15 percent), Blazers (14 percent), Kings (9 percent) and even Spurs (2 percent) in the mix when play stopped.

[Related: Our NBA Predictions]

The revised schedule changed those odds quite a bit. The biggest winners of the new format are Ja Morant and the Grizzlies, whose playoff chances ticked up by 22 percentage points and now sit at 37 percent. The Wizards also went up 6 percentage points in their long-shot Eastern Conference playoff bid, bringing them up to 8 percent.

That means the biggest postseason downgrades came to the Pelicans (down 15 percentage points), who now have only a 45 percent chance, with the Nets (-5 percentage points), Blazers (-4), Kings (-2), Spurs (-2) and Magic (-1) dropping as well. New Orleans’s entire playoff bid was premised on having enough games with Zion Williamson (and an easy schedule) to chase down the Grizz. That last part is still true, but with 10 fewer games left to play, the Pelicans’ margin for error got much smaller.

What about NBA Finals and — especially! — title odds?

But enough about fringe teams that are battling for the right to be overmatched in the first round. Let’s talk about the contenders.

In terms of Finals odds, the biggest beneficiaries of the new format are the aforementioned Sixers, who gained 7 percentage points compared with their standing in March. That is essentially owed to an easy schedule and Simmons’s return to health. The third-year former No. 1 overall pick is one of the league’s most polarizing players, but RAPTOR still considers him extremely valuable (with the 30th-best per-possession rating of anyone logging at least 1,500 minutes). In turn, that change helped drop the Bucks’ chances of winning the East by 8 percentage points — though they remain conference favorites in our revised model, with a 36 percent Finals probability. When we re-ran the model, the Celtics‘ probability of making the Finals increased by a percentage point with a healthy Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown.

[Related: The Best NBA Players This Season, According To RAPTOR]

Out West, improved Finals odds belong to the Lakers (up 3 percentage points) and Mavericks (+1). L.A. will be without Avery Bradley for the restart — it signed J.R. Smith to pick up the slack, which should be fun — but the model has some Lakers rated higher than either Bradley or Smith actually gaining the missing minutes. Meanwhile, Dallas is a highly interesting team for its own reasons, led by Luka Dončić’s off-the-charts offensive stats. Both of those gains came at the expense of the Rockets (down 2 percentage points), Clippers (-1) and Nuggets (-1), though L.A.’s other top contender remains the second-most likely team to win the West, with a 38 percent chance to make the Finals.

Finally, we get to the championship probabilities. They changed in similar fashion to the Finals odds — the Sixers (up 4 percentage points) and Lakers (+3) gained, while the Bucks (-5) and Clippers (-1) lost ground.

Which NBA teams’ odds changed?

Largest change in championship odds since the league paused play in march, according to the FiveThirtyEight model, for NBA teams that had at least a 1 percent chance to make the Finals (either before or after the pause)

Finals OddsTitle Odds

But overall, the NBA championship picture looks pretty similar to how it did back in March: The Lakers are still favorites, with the Clippers and Bucks sitting behind them. The Sixers have gained ground; the small-ball Rockets, Celtics, defending-champion Raptors (remember them?) and Nuggets are hanging around the periphery of the title race. We lost a few interesting storylines, though, and there is less certainty that we’ll end up with the true best team as champion.

There’s also no way to predict how the league’s bubble plan will fare when real people get placed into it and are expected to live their lives and play high-level basketball at the same time. But if the logistics work, the finish to this strange NBA campaign should be just as intriguing as promised at the start of the season, long before we knew what 2020 had in store for the world.

Subscribe to our sports podcast, Hot Takedown

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The Pats Could Only Go 3 Months Without An MVP Quarterback

We start with the huge information out of NFL free company. Previous league MVP Cam Newton will be a part of the New England Patriots on a one particular-12 months agreement so very low-danger for the Pats that it reminds us why New England tends to run strategic rings around every other team in the league. Whilst Newton demands to be healthier to carry out, the upside could be massive for both him and head mentor Bill Belichick, who has been creating a staff additional all-around the run anyway and probably has a large amount of tips saved up more than the past two many years about how to use a quarterback who can actually transfer. We are not certain that this variations the equilibrium of electric power in the AFC — though we do supply a instant of silence for the glimmer of hope that Geoff’s beloved Jets could have excelled in the AFC East. Nor did this make us fail to remember that the Patriots received caught cheating. All over again. But, at the incredibly least, the Belichick/Newton partnership could be actually enjoyable to watch.

Following, we talk about the hottest round of athletes speaking out from injustice, significantly in college or university football. The most noteworthy case in point is Mississippi State working again Kylin Hill, who vowed that he wouldn’t engage in for the faculty until Mississippi removed the Confederate battle flag from its point out flag. But other athletes — such as these at Kansas Condition, Clemson and Oklahoma Point out — have also spoken out versus racism, homophobia and lax health and fitness protocols throughout the coronavirus outbreak. Higher education athletes are in a one of a kind placement, specifically when they band jointly, of getting in a position to exert economic tension with no obtaining a great deal to eliminate — it is not like they’re getting paid to participate in in any case. Plus, they’re coming of age with much more and much more latest illustrations of how to converse out and have interaction in activism from the professionals. Colin Kaepernick is possibly the most notable, but the WNBA’s Maya Moore provides a concrete, and inspiring, template for athletes who want to leverage their careers to make constructive modify.

Lastly, Neil and Geoff choose over the Rabbit Hole to speak about how professional golfer Bryson DeChambeau may, in actuality, be a serious life Extraordinary Hulk. The evidence? He’s a complete stats and analytics nerd who has received about 40 pounds of muscle in the last 9 months. Whilst including a Sammy Sosa stage of bulk does not automatically assure larger effectiveness for every swing, the transform has put DeChambeau in the hunt for initial in just about every event he’s performed — and made him a lot extra dollars.

What we’re looking at this 7 days:

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Soccer Commentary Is Full Of Coded Racism


A new research shows gamers with darker pores and skin are normally lessened to physical attributes, while players with lighter pores and skin are praised for mental attributes.

A new paper released by Danish sporting activities details corporation RunRepeat and backed by the Specialist Footballers’ Association (PFA) can make it very clear that soccer commentary in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada has a racism trouble.

Scientists from RunRepeat sampled 80 game titles from the 2019-20 seasons of the English Leading League, French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga — broadcast throughout 7 distinct networks1 — and analyzed extra than 2,000 statements made by commentators about 643 distinctive players. The examine involved 1,361 responses about gamers with lighter skin and 713 feedback about players with darker skin.2 The examine identified that, weighting for the distinctive quantity of opinions manufactured about just about every team, gamers with lighter skin were praised much more commonly for their intelligence (62.6 per cent of the reviews coded as good had been about players with lighter skin), work ethic (60.4 per cent) and general excellent (62.8 %), whilst 63.3 % of criticism about a player’s intelligence was aimed at gamers with darker pores and skin, together with 67.6 per cent of criticism about a player’s high-quality.

The review also uncovered that gamers with darker skin had been typically diminished to racist tropes about their speed and power, which is typically coded by commentators as “pace and ability.”

“The examine is important as it [communicates] what a good deal of men and women already know,” claimed Jason Lee, the equalities instruction govt for the PFA and a former Premier League participant, around WhatsApp. “Which is that people from distinct ethnic groups can do accurately the similar items in a sport and yet be explained in a distinct way.”

Whilst the review concentrated on in-sport statements, Lee told FiveThirtyEight that it could undoubtedly have provided statements from studio segments. Acquire, for case in point, the remarks from previous Croatia manager and current West Bromwich Albion supervisor Slaven Bilić after Senegal beat Poland in the 2018 World Cup. After gesturing towards co-host Patrice Evra — who is Black, and who received five Leading League titles and a Champions League title with Manchester United and two Serie A titles with Juventus — Bilić reported: “Senegal — which is not common for African groups — they perform for each individual other, and they deserved fully [to win]. They did not make any mistakes.”

Zito Madu scrutinized the media’s reaction to Senegal’s victory in a piece for SB Nation:

“As troublesome as it usually is, it’s by no means astonishing to see commentators tumble back on coded language when they have to explore black gamers, primarily Africans, in soccer. Before Senegal had even kicked the ball, they were being being described not by their skill, creativity, or their conclusion producing, but with the normal terms you listen to about African teams: Pace, power, physicality, uncooked talent, tactical naivety, disorganization, swagger, and all the other conditions that are element of the exact same previous language that pretends to compliment black gamers by lessening them to their actual physical bodies and derides them for not mentally knowing the activity. It’s the historic strategy of the black male as a senseless brute, repackaged in sporting language.”

In his piece, Madu also observed how seamlessly the racist language slips from commentators to social media accounts with massive followings. For case in point, following Senegal defeat Poland, Twitter account Check out LFC — a Liverpool supporter account with much more than 85,000 followers — tweeted that winger Sadio Mané put in a “excellent shift” for Senegal, citing both of those his rate and power.

Mané is probably the very best participant on Liverpool, which is maybe the greatest soccer workforce in the world. His movement off the ball is next to none he is relentless when pressing opposition defenders he is just about singularly gifted at locating place that doesn’t feel to exist. There is barely a much more tactically excellent player in entire world soccer than Mané. But as Madu mentioned, Black players are also usually minimized to a racist trope by white commentators who fetishize their “pace and power” with no also celebrating their tactical brilliance.

“It’s not that black players simply cannot be quick and potent, it’s that in soccer, far too often, it is the only point they can be,” Madu wrote.

Bilić’s responses are not the only racist types that spring to brain, particularly from superior-profile white commentators. Former Liverpool and Scotland captain and present Sky Sports activities soccer pundit Graeme Souness has a historical past of criticizing the intelligence of Manchester United star Paul Pogba, a French participant of Guinean descent, are living on broadcasts.

In 2016, Souness mentioned that Pogba experienced to “develop his soccer brain,” and that he didn’t believe he had “a good comprehension of the recreation.” In 2017, Souness claimed he wished Pogba played extra like Marouane Fellaini — a Belgian participant of Morrocan ancestry, and who Souness referred to as a “thug” in the upcoming breath — prior to contacting the Frenchman “a little bit of a YouTuber,” an evident critique of the reality that Pogba typically does seemingly difficult factors with a soccer ball at his feet. Whenever Souness does compliment Pogba, it isn’t about the midfielder’s creativeness or intelligence, but rather his “muscularity” or “athleticism.”

Souness and Bilić are hardly the only white soccer pundits peddling this variety of barely coded racism, as we can see in this study. Lee proposed that all commentators obtain unconscious bias education a researcher from RunRepeat who worked on the examine explained to FiveThirtyEight that about 94 per cent of the commentators and co-commentators analyzed in the analyze were being white. “There are Black pundits, but not many — if any — direct presenters or commentators,” Lee stated.

And each time any white commentator deploys “pace and power” or “athleticism” to explain a Black participant — without also commenting on their tactical intelligence, skill, creative imagination or get the job done ethic — they are not only missing the mark in phrases of their soccer critique, but also denying Black players’ humanity.

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Cam Newton Brings Game-Changing Mobility To The Patriots (If He’s Healthy)

Sunday night was surprisingly eventful for the New England Patriots. Within a span of less than 20 minutes, it was reported that the NFL had docked the Patriots a 2021 third-round draft pick and fined it $1.1 million for illegally videotaping the Bengals sideline and — seemingly out of the blue — that New England had signed free-agent quarterback Cam Newton to a one-year deal.

The loss of a third-round pick in next year’s draft could end up proving costly for New England. After all, the presumed starting quarterback prior to Sunday’s signing of Newton was Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round pick out of Auburn. Less than a week ago, one league insider was speculating that Stidham would start all 16 games for the Patriots in 2020. But Newton — another Auburn QB and former NFL MVP — has upended that assumption. In the near term, Newton’s addition could improve the Patriots Super Bowl chances: At least one sports book moved the Patriots from a 3.9 percent shot to hoist the Lombardi trophy to 5.3 percent after the signing was reported.

Still, signing Cam isn’t without risk. Newton presumably comes with a high chance of future injury, making the prospect of future production uncertain. He’s had a series of surgeries over the past few years, the most recent of which was an operation on his foot in December for a Lisfranc injury. The injury uncertainty, coupled with reports that teams were unable to work him out because of COVID-19, may explain why New England was able to sign him to a league minimum contract. But putting injury risk aside, if we assume Cam is healthy enough to start, there is decent evidence that he can be a productive passer for the Patriots.

Based on work by Eric Eager and George Chahrouri of Pro Football Focus, we know that a quarterback’s passing performance from a clean pocket is one of the best predictors of his future production, and Newton has been very consistent on those throws throughout his career.

With the exception of 2019, when he started just two games, Cam has not had a QBR below 50 on clean pocket throws since entering the league. Completion percentage over expected, or CPOE, can also help us forecast future performance, and in 2018 Newton completed passes 4.2 percentage points over what we would expect from a league-average QB, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. As Newton enters his age-31 season, there’s no reason to believe he won’t return to his previous form if his health cooperates.

But Cam’s passing might just be secondary to the value he brings to New England as a runner. Mobile quarterbacks make defenses account for an extra player, negating the numbers advantage in the running game defenses usually enjoy versus pocket passers, who they can often safely ignore. And Cam’s size brings an extra dimension of difficulty to the problem of defending the run because he’s so hard to bring down. Since 2011, Newton leads NFL quarterbacks with 110 missed tackles forced, according to Pro Football Focus. But these runs aren’t just broken plays and scrambles: Newton is a smart, instinctual player who a team can trust with option plays like zone read. Since 2011, Newton leads the NFL with 13 touchdowns on 242 zone-read rush attempts, the highest number of attempts among quarterbacks in that span.

Newton is effective at zone read

Cam Newton’s regular-season zone read rushing plays, 2011-19, with expected points added (EPA) per play and success rate*

SeasonZone-Read RushesTouchdownsEPA/PlaySuccess Rate

*Successful plays are those with positive expected points added.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Smart football analysts believe that the Patriots will adapt their offense to maximize Newton’s strengths. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels likely has run concepts from his time in Denver with Tim Tebow that he can dust off and tailor to Cam’s specific strengths, and the Patriots defense is widely regarded as good enough to keep games close, despite the unpredictability of defensive performance from year to year. There’s a lot that will need to break right for the Patriots to make a deep playoff run in 2020. But even if all Newton’s signing did was to divert attention away from yet another round of league sanctions for questionable competitive behavior, it may have already been worth it.

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How Do You Play Sports In The Middle Of A Pandemic?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Cases of COVID-19 are spiking in places across the U.S. that weren’t hit hard initially. Some areas that had reopened are shutting down bars and reducing capacity in restaurants. People are throwing tantrums in grocery stores when asked to put on masks. And in the middle of all of that … we’re trying to bring back sports.

American sports leagues are just now coming out of their coronavirus hibernation, with some already started and some finalizing their schedules for play. They’re ramping up testing of their players, so every day, it seems like there’s another announcement of a team full of athletes afflicted by the coronavirus. Players (and staff) across MLB, the NBA and college athletics have tested positive. The Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League had to pull out of the Challenge Cup tournament after several positive tests. And golfers have withdrawn from PGA Tour events two weeks in a row after testing positive — and that’s not even counting caddies.

We wanted to understand these headlines better, so we brought together two science journalists and two sports journalists to see if we could figure out what this all means for the safety of the athletes and the reality of the leagues’ returns. Maggie Koerth and Kaleigh Rogers have been covering the science and politics of the novel coronavirus since the earliest days of the pandemic, while Neil Paine has been examining its effects on the world of sports.

So let’s dig in. Should we be surprised that athletes have been struck with the virus, given what we know about the prevalence of cases in the general, nonathlete population?

maggie (Maggie Koerth, senior science writer): I don’t think it’s surprising that a bunch of people who share a locker room and run around breathing heavily on each other might contract a virus from one another.

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, science and politics reporter): Exactly. We know that the virus spreads from prolonged, close contact. Sports are a natural hot spot. Even though the actual sports-ing often takes place outdoors, in the open air, there’s enough time spent close together inside that viral spread is inevitable. Social distancing is effective, but team sports are the opposite of social distancing.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): There are also a LOT of pro athletes in these leagues. Last year, 1,410 players played at least one Major League Baseball game.

The NFL has even more players. And the NBA and WNBA still number in the many hundreds. So it was inevitable that some — or even many — players would come back with positive tests as they were eased into these bubbles, right? (This is before we even get into the many, many college players out there.)

kaleigh: And most of them have not yet been exposed. A Stanford study of MLB employees that came out in May found less than 1 percent had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

sara.ziegler: The point about sports being the opposite of social distancing is a good one. But these positive tests are coming before a lot of the play has even started! These athletes were theoretically just living their lives as normal people.

kaleigh: Sara, that’s a good point and also gets at a big question mark when it comes to plans to resume play: What rules will be placed on athletes off the field? I know the MLB plan, at least, is relying on just asking athletes to “exercise care.”

neil: Saying “exercise care” seems like a big ask from a group of people who are young and probably feel an extra level of invincibility over the average person (seeing as they’ve basically never run into physical limitations before in their lives, up until this).

kaleigh: And Neil, that’s not even mentioning college athletes who, along with being young and, y’know, in college, also have other obligations like class to contend with.

neil: LOL, class.

kaleigh: Surely sometimes, right?

neil: (For sure.)

maggie: Those underwater baskets aren’t gonna weave themselves.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

maggie: And we haven’t even added the spectators to the equation either. West Virginia University recently did a study where they looked at influenza data between 1962 and 2016 and found that you can actually see an increase in flu mortality in a city that’s correlated with bringing in a new sports franchise.

Like, sports teams make flu season deaths rise in those cities by between 4 and 24 percent. Bring in a new team and that flu season (and every one after it) had more deaths.

sara.ziegler: Oh, wow! That does not make me feel great about all the non-pandemic games I’ve attended.

maggie: That’s building on previous research that had found making it to the Super Bowl (i.e., extending the football season further into peak flu season and increasing time fans spent watching football together, even inside their own houses) increased flu mortality in a team’s home city by 18 percent among people over the age of 65.

neil: That’s incredible. Something we never really think about at all.

(Although one takeaway from this whole thing is how underappreciated the risk of the flu is anyway.)

maggie: Now seems like a nice time to plug flu shots. Get your flu shot this fall, people.

sara.ziegler: It seems like almost all of the athlete cases in this round of testing have been asymptomatic — or, at least, we’re not hearing of many more serious cases, like we did with athletes earlier on in the pandemic. Does that surprise any of you?

kaleigh: I think some of that speaks to the high level of physical health that many athletes have to maintain. If you’re already in peak shape, it’s not shocking that you’re experiencing a less severe infection.

maggie: That’s not wildly surprising to me, either, given what we know about how this virus operates. Younger people generally have less severe infection. And even though there are exceptions to that, it’s still generally true.

kaleigh: Yeah, Maggie, those exceptions are still pretty rare.

neil: Will the relatively mild cases among athletes be the saving grace for bringing sports back? Or are we just deluding ourselves and a severe case is inevitable?

kaleigh: Neil and Sara, you’d have an answer for this: Is there any concern about athletes and more severe cases of COVID? I can’t imagine being intubated is something anyone who relies on their body for a living wants to experience.

Isn’t there also a financial risk to putting players’ health on the line?

neil: There’s definitely been negotiations to increase the amount of insurance for NBA players.

(And it won’t be held against NBA players if they choose not to play the rest of the season.)

kaleigh: Severe cases in young, otherwise healthy people are rare, but not unheard of. And there are lots of reports of lingering impacts from more serious infections.

sara.ziegler: And there have been some more serious cases among athletes. Von Miller of the Denver Broncos was sick this spring, and he’s been worried about the damage to his lungs. There’s just so much we don’t know about the long-term effects of the virus.

maggie: I’ve also been thinking about all the stories I’ve read where “mild” nonhospitalized infections were still … not a walk in the park.

kaleigh: Totally, Maggie! Often, “mild” only means “anything less than needing a respirator,” which is a pretty broad range of severity.

maggie: I’m waiting for a severe case in a coach, myself. Or owners.

kaleigh: I think we also need to consider that the people who make sports happen aren’t only athletes in the prime of their life.

maggie: Trainers. Staff. There’s lots of people who work with those athletes who are not 24-year-old demigods.

kaleigh: And then there’s the fact that if they’re getting sick, they could be spreading the virus to their families and the wider community.

A young, healthy person getting a mild or asymptomatic case and recovering has never been what we’ve been trying to avoid.

maggie: Exactly.

sara.ziegler: Right. The bubbles aren’t needed just to keep people inside of them safe — they’re needed to keep everyone outside of them safe, too!

neil: I guess that’s a big argument in favor of the “bubble” approach, compared with the leagues that are doing it in a less structured way.

maggie: Bubbles definitely make a lot of sense. The YMCA has reported (although this isn’t independently confirmed data or anything) that they’ve had no outbreak clusters associated with their childcare centers … and that’s partly because they’ve been keeping little kids in nine-kid-plus-teacher bubbles that don’t interact with other bubbles at the center.

But bubbles are harder for sports teams, I think, when, you know, the bubbles have to play one another on the field or court.

sara.ziegler: Bubbles bumping into each other, left and right.

maggie: Maybe it’s time for intramural sports? Players from the same team just play each other all season.

sara.ziegler: I guess that’s sort of the idea with the NBA/WNBA — it’s just one very large intramural tournament.

kaleigh: One thing that stands out to me about the plans to reopen are the efforts to test very frequently. This will surely help curb the spread somewhat by allowing teams to identify and isolate actively infectious individuals. And it can help avoid false negatives, because even mild cases are usually detectable if tested in the first five to seven days of infection, according to one expert at UCLA. But testing is not a panacea. Some of the spread will have already happened by the time someone tests positive. And that’s where community spread becomes more concerning.

sara.ziegler: Can that regular testing tell us anything about the virus itself that we don’t know from the much more irregular testing going on among all of us regular folk?

kaleigh: Well, one thing I’m learning from reporting I’m doing for a story (stay tuned!) is that testing is only part of the equation. There is a lot of useful data we can get from testing, including historical data we can study when this is all over, but in terms of controlling the active outbreak, it’s only half of the answer. Without proper containment and contact tracing, testing can only do so much.

maggie: I would certainly be interested in getting my hands on this data later, after the leagues have had a longer period of testing, and seeing how changes in positives correlate with different behaviors by the team members

neil: With player testing, is it valuable because it’s everyone in a population pool (so less bias) … or less valuable because that population is heavily biased towards the young and very fit?

kaleigh: Yes, Neil.

sara.ziegler: LOL

kaleigh: In the MLB antibody testing study, for example, the sample was 60 percent male and 80 percent white.

maggie: If you have this population you’re testing regularly, over and over, that might tell us something about which behaviors really are more or less risky.

neil: Good point, Maggie — the time-series aspect of it is probably the most valuable part.

maggie: But, of course, that won’t really be available for a while.

It will be interesting in retrospect, though! And given that COVID-19 is probably not just going to go away any time soon … useful in the long term.

kaleigh: We’ve learned a lot in the course of this pandemic from “natural experiments.” I think about that choir group that met for practice and taught us so much about just how this virus spreads.

neil: One thing is for sure: Researchers love anything that looks like a natural experiment!

So I bet this data shows up in a lot of papers eventually.

kaleigh: To me, the bigger question (especially as a non-sports person) is: Is any of this necessary? We’re making a big effort to take something that is, quite simply, not essential and make it safe enough to bring back during a pandemic.The best course of action would be to just wait it out, but I realize there is a lot of money and emotion on the line.

maggie: Lots and lots of money.

neil: Yeah. I think there’s the rush to feel a sense of “normalcy” again, but mainly it’s money.

maggie: Let’s not discount the way that lots and lots of money represents a return to normalcy, too. Like, sports is a whole damn economy. The feeling of normalcy people are seeking from it is both symbolic and practical.

neil: We’ve talked often about how the losses might be painful for leagues in the short term but they’re at least manageable if they finish the season. But if leagues start to default on these TV contracts promising playoff games, it could have long-lasting consequences.

kaleigh: That’s really the tension for a lot of our reopening decisions: the desire (and need) to reopen the economy versus the need to control this pandemic.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, the issues around sports restarting are the same issues that the entire economy faces.

maggie: And downstream businesses, from restaurants to transportation companies to, heck, our colleagues over at ESPN.

kaleigh: And our colleagues here at FiveThirtyEight! (Though you guys have been doing great work in the absence of any actual sports.)

neil: Hah, yep. (Thank you!)

kaleigh: I can’t imagine what I would do if science and politics just … stopped.

sara.ziegler: It’s been a pretty strange thing, that’s for sure.

maggie: Yeah, sorry, Neil. You guys are doing amazing. My head was just on those TV contracts.

neil: One of our colleagues said sports are the toy aisle of the journalism store, which is kind of true. And it’s also true that sports are a luxury a functioning country gets to have.

Are we that right now? Probably not. 😬

sara.ziegler: We’re lucky here that we can cover other stuff at FiveThirtyEight. (Hello, economics!) But sports-specific websites are really struggling, and I think that’s been a factor in the coverage of sports returning.

I’m not surprised that people whose livelihoods are tied to sports want them back right away.

neil: And that includes the players too!

sara.ziegler: For sure.

maggie: America is in a weird situation of maybe having more culture/money in sports than pretty much any other place … AND having less control over its COVID outbreak than any other place.

kaleigh: But as we saw with Novak Djokovic’s tournament, even trying to bring back sports in areas where COVID cases have dipped doesn’t guarantee immunity.

neil: Of course, it didn’t help that nobody wore masks (and the person putting on the tournament doesn’t believe in vaccines).

At least that is one area where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has the edge!

sara.ziegler: LOL

So, positive tests of prominent athletes are undoubtedly going to continue as long as there are positive tests of everybody else. Silver said the NBA has “no choice but to learn to live with this virus.” Is that true? Is this the only option for the NBA and every other league that wants to start up again?

kaleigh: If leagues want to start up again in 2020, I can’t imagine how they will avoid people in the league getting sick, short of moving everyone to Antarctica and hosting the whole season there.

maggie: I mean, yeah, no one has any choice but to learn to live with the virus. That’s sort of reality for us all. HOW you choose to learn to live with it, though … there’s a lot of choice in that.

“Have to learn to live with the virus” =/= “welp, I guess we just go back to normal.”

Unless you decide that’s what it means. And then you’re choosing the consequences of that, too.

neil: Yeah, pretending it’s not happening is not a viable way of living with the virus. (As we’re seeing a lot of states learn right now.)

kaleigh: Speak for yourself, guys. I’m moving to the South Pole.

neil: 🐧

maggie: Ironically, Kaleigh, McMurdo seems like it would be a hotbed of virus spread.

But you do you.

kaleigh: Yeah they absolutely would not let me in, coming from New York City.

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